Daniel Larison addresses an op-ed in which Jackson Diehl argues for what he believes to be the true lessons of the war in Iraq as they might pertain to Syria. In summary, Diehl argues for a fuller comprehension of events in both places, and also specifically in Kosovo, in support of a more Clintonian military and diplomatic approach. Larison takes Diehl’s work to be representative of “The Proud Ignorance of the Iraq War Hawks”:
One lesson from Iraq that many war opponents have learned is that the U.S. shouldn’t be waging unnecessary wars that serve no discernible U.S. interest. That isn’t the wrong lesson to learn. It’s one that Diehl simply ignores, which is probably why he never really addresses how it would serve U.S. interests to go to war in Syria.
A more accurate characterization in my view is that Diehl does not in any sense ignore this supposed lesson, but that his op-ed was written specifically to disagree with it.
What I take to be Diehl’s thesis statement reads as follows:
Iraq was unquestionably costly and painful to the United States — in dollars, in political comity and, above all, in lives, both of Iraqis and Americans. It hasn’t turned out, so far, as we war supporters hoped. Yet in the absence of U.S. intervention, Syria is looking like it could produce a much worse humanitarian disaster and a far more serious strategic reverse for the United States.
Accepting for sake of argument the blogger’s apparent position that preventing or reducing loss of life and human misery is not a “discernible U.S. interest,” we can focus on the second claim, and still find that Diehl does not “simply ignore” U.S. interests, but makes what he clearly believes to be a strong claim regarding them. In support of this thesis, Diehl argues specifically that somewhat likely outcomes of continuing to let the Syrian cataclysm run its course include an Al Qaeda-affiliate group consolidated in Syria, a further resurgence of AQ activity in Iraq along with other spillover effects, and overall greatly diminished U.S. influence in the region and, implicitly, worldwide. These arguments are accompanied at key points by observations relating to the actual course of the Iraq War and aftermath.
We may disagree with Diehl about the effects and outcomes of a continued generally non-interventionist Syria policy, whether they are likely or, if so, of significant or overriding concern, but the true difference between his position and Larison’s is over strategic concepts, not Diehl’s failure to consider “discernible” U.S. interests. Diehl’s concept may be a bad or a weak concept: Perhaps it should not matter to the U.S. at all whether a new generation of radical Islamist fighters contends for power in Syria, whether Iraq is pushed back into a state of sectarian civil war, or whether the U.S. is seen as being, or actually is, able to act decisively in the region. I suppose it may be the blogger’s position that these matters do not deserve even to be discussed. Yet certainly they can be “discerned.” They are slightly more complicated to depict than a direct attack on the White House as depicted in a popcorn movie, but merely discerning them does not require a great deal of imagination, especially since their underlying assumptions have been central to U.S. policy for many years.
I left a brief version of the above as a comment at Larison’s blog. Mr. Larison’s reply was even briefer:
Diehl makes no real attempt to support his claim that there will be a greater “strategic reverse” for the U.S. than Iraq if the conflict in Syria continues without direct American intervention. I said he ignores the lesson that “the U.S. shouldn’t be waging unnecessary wars that serve no discernible U.S. interest.” Diehl fails to demonstrate why an American war in Syria is necessary to secure U.S. interests, and in my view he doesn’t even try very hard.
My response directly to Mr. Larison focuses on the notion of “ignorance,” re-stating my more basic contention that Diehl addresses the “lesson” by explicitly denying that it applies to Iraq or Syria. I might have responded to Larison’s wording more directly concerning the shifting of focus to “why an American war in Syria is necessary” and what Diehl or we might make of that definition. In other words, does “an American war” mean any involvement or risk of involvement more extensive than current levels?
Despite defects and some redundancy, the comment (at this precise moment still in “moderation”) may help to clarify the larger problem with American Conservative conservatism that our friend B Psycho has noted seems to “grind my gears”:
Mr. Larison: In making a series of claims within a strategic concept, Diehl clearly acknowledges the underlying question of “discernible U.S. interests,” by focusing on, arguing, and evidencing the ones that he “discerns.”
The difference here is, I believe, in strategic concepts – possibly even a different implicit understanding of what the U.S. and therefore its interests even are or should be. [I was thinking here in part of the “neo-imperialism” and “exceptionalism” questions.] Within Diehl’s familiar framework, for example, an Al Qaeda affiliate in a strengthened position in Syria would be deemed highly problematic. More generally, for Diehl a decline in U.S. influence in the region ought to be avoided if possible. In other words, the “interests” that concern Diehl at least qualify as “discernible,” and his op-ed at least qualifies as an “attempt to support his claim.”
You may well possess a superior or even a far superior concept, but refusing to acknowledge that his arguments are even arguments at all, that the interests he claims to discern are even interests at all, implies that the U.S. has no conceivable interest in the region whatsoever, that it is or would be a matter of complete indifference to the U.S. who runs Syria or Iraq, or how, or how other nations and non-state actors are influenced or react. Is there any point at which the political-military developments within the Middle East, or with any region of the world beyond the U.S. homeland, under your concept, can be of sufficient concern to the U.S. to justify intervention or consideration of intervention? If so, then Diehl’s framework should at least be comprehensible and arguable. His concerns could be acknowledged and weighed against others. If not, then the logical consequence would be an anti-interventionism that turns into just the kind of “isolationism,” or what is actually meant by the term, that you are frequently at pains to deny as a fair characterization of your outlook.